A Life Restarted

A Life Restarted
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By Steve Weinstein

Whoever said love at first sight is a myth had never met my parents. For 60 years, from the day they met until the day my father died at age 92 in 2008, they were utterly as devoted to each other. Like Mormons and doves, they mated for life.

Even for someone as happy in his domestic life, economically well situated, and mentally alert as Dad, his body had succumbed to the decay that comes with extreme old age. The only good thing about the slow decline of his final years was that it gave his loved ones time to prepare themselves.

My parents always maintained that they would do whatever it took to live at home for the rest of their lives. The downside of that independence is that the surviving partner must suddenly learn how to live alone. Beyond the devastating grief of losing her helpmate and best friend, Dad’s death suddenly left Mom with too much time on her hands.

When you retire to Florida, if you don’t play bridge, dislike golf and aren’t active in a religious congregation, there’s not a lot left. With little to look forward to beyond visits to various medical specialists, Mom gave way to depression and despair.

My brother lives in Ohio and I in New York. In the months after the funeral, we tried to visit her as often as could get away. The trips not only gave Mom something to look forward to but also something to fret over. In their heyday, my parents were intrepid world travelers, but with Dad’s physical condition, they were confined to jaunts no farther than the mall, car dealerships and medical facilities.

Naturally prone to worry — and now with the leisure to concoct scenario after scenario — our trips became a source anxiety as well as happy anticipation. Any rainstorm would bring on the possibility of flight interruptions. Missed connections, airline delays, terrorist activity all loomed large in her mind.

Even after safely landing, there was the fear of state troopers lying in wait for anyone going 5 miles above the speed limit, reckless drivers and slippery roads. I learned to move up the flight time an hour: If the scheduled departure time was 3:15 p.m., I told her 4 p.m. I called to tell the plane had landed only I’d already rented the car ad was well en route to her house.

In the months after Dad’s death, I spoke to her on the phone nearly every day. I’d try to get her to talk about the weather (always a favorite), what she had eaten, the contents of the book she was reading or last night’s “Final Jeopardy” question. But the conversation inevitably became an endless recycling of reminisces about Dad and how desperately unhappy she was.

For a while, I tried to interest her in anything that would get her out of her self-imposed isolation. I encouraged her to invite her friends to lunch, a concert or movie. I offered every suggestion I could think of that might get her out of the house. Mom loved dogs, so why not volunteer at a shelter? Wouldn’t it be fun for her to work at one of the charity thrift stores where she loved to find bargains and price the items herself? She was always a voracious reader and her natural curiosity made her a whiz at crossword-puzzles, so why not expand her horizons by taking an adult education class? The answer was always the same: “I just don’t think I can face being around people right now.”

One day we wandered into the subject of places she would still to visit. When she mentioned Buenos Aires, a light went off in my head. Everything I had heard about the Argentine capital made it sound like the ideal destination: The Paris of South America was a European-inspired metropolis, safe, clean, fascinating and with an extremely favorable exchange rate.

I came up with an itinerary, but the prospect of driving across the peninsula, staying overnight in a Miami hotel, flying to the other end of the world, and navigating a strange city was beyond daunting, it was terrifying. Her real challenge, however, was interrupting a predictable routine to step outside of her comfort zone. Finally worn down by my insistence, she reluctantly agreed.

The trip turned out to be a complete success. We stayed in a British-owned hotel that was charming, comfortable, cozy and conveniently located on a side street in the heart of the city. We took in the national art museum and one dedicated to the memory of Eva Peron. An entire morning was dedicated to Le Recoleta, the cemetery famous for its elaborate epitaphs and mansion-like mausoleums. Our concierge arranged a private guided tour of landmarks associated with the city’s rich Jewish culture and history. After a de rigueur visit to one of the city’s tango palaces, we walked back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning through empty streets without feeling endangered.

Mom had a great time. More importantly, she had done something, something big.

The trip marked a turning point. She had something other than Dad to talk about — and talk about it she did, to neighbors, medical personnel, anyone who would listen.

She felt a sense of renewal and projected a newfound self-confidence. People noticed and started including her in their plans. It was at one of her “girls’ night out” with the neighbors that she was introduced to Angela, the woman who quickly became her best friend and boon companion.

Today, our phone conversations no longer revolve around bereavement and the chokehold of memory. She regales me with so many concerts, theater productions, movies and parties that I’m the one who’s starting to feel like the recluse! This past week, Angela surprised her with a large 90th birthday party where she basked in being the center of attention.

In the dark months after Dad died, she would never have thought it possible to be experiencing such good times. Although she’s aware that the day may come when she can no longer drive a car or perform routine tasks, she doesn’t allow the future — or the past — to cloud her enjoyment of the present. #Buenos Aires

 

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Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein is a journalist who had interned at the Sunday Times of London and has written for New York Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (online), CNBC.com and The Village Voice among others. He has edited Crain's New York Business, Edge Media Network, the New York Blade and New York Press, and authored The Q Guide to Fire Island (Alyson, 2007). He lives in Midtown Manhattan with two Staffordshire pit bulls.